My husband and I were woken this morning by our youngest crawling into bed with us. He wrapped his bony arms around my neck and snuggled in contentedly. Shortly after, our eldest wedged himself into the bed also and our cosy moment gave way to brotherly squabbling over space and blankets. Still drowsy and wanting a few more minutes peace, I became irritable with their squirming and arguing. Eventually, I flung the blankets off them and sent them downstairs. Listening to their feet scamper away, I tugged the duvet tightly around me and felt my heart swell with gratitude, happy to have been woken in this way. Because I knew that, just a few streets away, another set of parents were waking to the impossible grief of having buried their teenage son the day before. A grief made even more painful by the incomprehensible fact that he had taken his own life.
I do not know the family or the circumstances of the young man’s death and I can only imagine how wretched the parents are feeling. But I have cried and prayed for them many times over. I have also cried and prayed for my own family. Because young New Zealand men are at increased risk of suicide in comparison with those in other countries and, soon, I’ll have two of them. I can’t know for sure that I’m going to be able to protect mine from such tragedy. While I am usually diligent about not letting my parenting be led by fear, it seems irresponsible to cross my fingers and hope my boys will be ok.
In that tricky space between childhood and adulthood, our teenagers are faced with a myriad of challenges that, frankly, their brains aren’t ready to contend with – drinking and drugs, puberty and sex, academic and social pressure, addictive devices and newly-minted drivers’ licenses… They are bombarded with new and challenging situations that could easily overwhelm them. I’d love to be able to fast forward my boys straight past their teens but I know it’s the going through adolescence that prepares them for adulthood.
One piece of common-sense advice we parents hear is to keep talking with our kids. When they’re young, transparent with their thoughts and feelings, we assume our window into their lives will remain open throughout their adolescence and into adulthood. But they develop a natural need to separate from us and, as they step further into the wider world, that window slowly closes. It’s not for me to wedge it open and insist on a view inside but to honour and respect my boys in a way that feels safe for them to leave their window ajar. That kind of trust is something that gets built during the childhood years beforehand.
HOW CAN I KEEP THE WINDOW OPEN?
Building an intentional relationship with my sons while they are young may be the one thing I can do now that will ensure they have someone they are willing to reach out to if they feel themselves floundering as teens. So, I ask myself, what patterns can I establish in my relationships with them now that will show them I am a helpful, trustworthy person to share with and turn to as they navigate adolescence? These are my thoughts –
Talk About Difficult Experiences
It’s human nature to assume that, if an element of a person’s life is difficult or upsetting, something must be wrong and it should be fixed as soon as possible. But challenge and pain are normal parts of life, just as ease and joy are. If my boys understand that there is an ebb and flow to life which everyone experiences, they will be in a stronger position to face the events that challenge them, able to consider the majority of them as normal, not catastrophic. By being open to and about my own difficulties, modeling acceptance & optimism, my boys will more likely relate to their difficulties in the same way. It’s up to me to make talking about life’s challenges as normal as it is to talk about what they’re learning at school and to offer a constructive attitude towards them.
Validate My Children’s Struggles
We adults have a tendency to minimise or dismiss our children’s struggles. From our experienced perspective, a scratched finger or snatched toy is of little significance and we try to assure them that everything’s okay. We tell them, “It’s just a scratch” or “how about you play with the blocks instead?” But the message our children might hear is, “your pain is not important”. Alternatively, rushing in to solve the situation could be construed as “Mum can’t handle my feelings” or, simply, “Mum doesn’t get me”. Being willing and able to validate, sit with and talk about anything my boys may be feeling makes me a good place for them to come to when they’re struggling, rather than suffering in silence. If it’s significant to them, it’s significant to us.
Be A Partner with My Children, Not Their Judge
I often wonder whether my boys see me as their judge or as a partner in life. We can be so tied up in our perceived role as parent, so-called “teaching them right from wrong”, that we do things that separate us from our children. I have noticed that, when they “mess up” or “fail” in some way, my boys generally know it and that criticising their behaviour is pointing out the obvious and akin to rubbing their noses in it. When my brain is shouting “what were you thinking?!” I have been trying to bite my tongue and, instead, support them to put things right or to do better next time. I know that their willingness to come to me and show me their insufficiency, shame or regret as they get older will depend on my history of response at times of vulnerability. My hope is that, by supporting them to move forward, they will learn that they are worthy of receiving help and aren’t expected to be perfect. And, most importantly, that my support is not conditional on them making good choices.
The parents who lost their son recently may well have done these things and more. Yet they are still left with punched-in-the-stomach grief and an un-fill-able void. Honestly, when I consider New Zealand’s rates of youth suicide, I feel in over my head. Before I became a parent and I was only a mother in my imagination, it didn’t occur to me that this would be an issue I’d have to give thought to.
I know that creating an intentional relationship with my boys now, while they are are young, is only a starting point. There is a whole lot more to suicide prevention than what I have come up with here and, unnervingly, many of the contributing factors are beyond my control. When they are teenagers, my boys are not going to be crawling into bed with me at six o’clock in the morning but they need to know that they can.
I have read on the topic of teen mental health and suicide but not exhaustively. I have more research to do and I ask that you do the same. In this piece, I am thinking aloud as I begin to form my thoughts.